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Belittlement Of Womens Status English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4446 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Belittlement of women’s status in The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta and Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Since Victorian Era, belittlement of women’s status has been a barrier to social development. A considerable number of authors have written various novels depicting this deplorable situation, among which The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta and Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Choosing to compare these two novels gives an outstanding approach on the subjet in a way that their protagonists, in spite of presenting numerous differences, suffer from the same issues.

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The purpose of this essay is first to evaluate how minimization of women is manifested in these two novels by describing the characters, depicting women’s duties at home and in society as a whole, portray their treatment by society, outline the gender discrimination when it comes to education and finally express the ways the protagonists deal with this situation. The authors’ styles will contribute in the analysis of these subject matters.

As a conclusion to this analysis, we find out that in spite of their large difference in age and backround, Nnu Ego and Tambudzai, the protagonists of these novels face the same problem of minimization of their status in society.



I- The protagonists

Tambudzai in Nervous Conditions

Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood

Main similarities between these two characters

Main differences between these two characters

Techniques used by the authors to portray the characters

II- Women’s duties

Women’s at home

Women’s duties in society

Women’s treatment by society

III- Girls versus boys

Importance of male children of girls

Effects of gender on education

IV- The ways with which the characters deal with minimization of women

Nnu Ego’s rebellion against life and Nnaife’s violence

Tambu’s ardent fight for education

Examples of other characters rebellions


Nervous Conditions and The Joys of Motherhood are two semi-autobiographical novels, respectively written by Tsitsi Dangarembga and Buchi Emecheta. Nervous Conditions takes place in Rhodesia and focuses on a girl named Tambudzai who has to struggle through the difficulties of being a girl to realize her most ardent desire which is to study whereas The Joys of Motherhood occurs in Lagos and is centered on Nnu Ego, a married woman who has to struggle through gender inequality to fulfill her children’s needs. Throughout these two stories, the authors depict the minimization of women in Africa.

Nowadays, the difficulties that women face because of their status, especially in Africa, have become a common global issue. Many authors have written novels to depict women’s situations and the way they deal with the society’s mentality on this gender inequality. Two examples of these are Nervous Conditions and The Joys of Motherhood. Choosing to compare these two novels gives an original perspective of the subject because the protagonists of the books, in spite of their large difference in age, nearly suffer from the same problems.

This essay will essentially be centered on how the minimization of women’s status is manifested in The Joys of Motherhood and in Nervous Conditions and how the main characters of these books deal with this obstacle to their social development.

Minimization of women is nowadays a global issue in many countries in which the conservation of traditional customs is preponderant. The concreteness and reality of the matter is shown in these novels with the use of words and expressions typically appertaining to the Igbo society such as “Ma Chido” which has an affectious connotation. In other words, as the author wants to show that the minimization of women is an actual problem in Africa, she uses real facts to put the reader in the context.

In The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta lets the plot and characters inform the readers about cultural information and the character’s feelings in a simple and direct, using rather short and understandable sentences. As an example, we can cite: “He convinced himself that he was doing the right thing. He had no choice, anyway. As a grass hunter, his income had only been five pounds a month.” (Emecheta, 147) Here, Emecheta makes it clear in the reader’s mind that Nnaife gained a little with his job and that he was taking a decision without being totally sure about whether he should do it or not. The clearness and conciseness of the sentences remove all ambiguity in the understanding of her message. Thus, her audience includes youngsters who are the future leaders responsible for fighting against this belittlement of women’s status. This simplicity in style also contributes in successfully describing the protagonists.

The protagonists of these two books are the most important characters in a way that they are the ones who mostly suffer from minimization due to their gender. Their differences in character show that gender inequality is not inflicted to a special kind of woman but it’s a social mentality only based on whether a person is a woman or not. However, they suffer from this problem in different ways.

The main character of Nervous Conditions is Tambudzai. Most often called Tambu, she’s the fourteen year-old narrator of the novel. Tambu is intelligent, curious and hardworking. She feels a special love for school and education, which makes her escape from the homestead: “But I want to go to school” (Dangarembga, 21). This wish of going to school is a preview on Tambu’s rebellious nature, knowing that at that time, girls’ place was in the homestead, especially in the kitchen. Though she is conscious and sympathetic to the power of tradition, she wants to be free and would like to break the prototype inflicted onto her sex.

The protagonist of The Joys of Motherhood is Nnu Ego. At the beginning, she was characterized by her youthful beauty. She has inherited her mother’s strength but is less aggressive, more polite. After leaving her first husband, she lives a life of challenge and sacrifice in Lagos, with her second husband, Nnaife, and her children.

Even though these two characters have a large difference in age and live in different households, their main similarity is that they are very hard working. Nnu Ego spends a lot of time doing household work, but she has to manage her time in a way that she can sell cigarettes to gain money and fulfill her children’s needs: “She went by foot to save money, though she intended to return by bus if she was successful” (Emecheta, 90). This quote not only emphasizes the unpleasant conditions in which Nnu Ego has to work but also the uncertainty of her gains. She is going to work but is prepared to both eventualities: being successful or not, and her means of transport depend on these. On the other side, Tambu, being the eldest daughter of the family, has the habit of doing household chores since she was little. Another aspect which relates these two characters is that they both feel an inferiority complex toward the colonizer. They consider colonization as a source of development: “We treated them like minor deities. With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.” (Dangarembga, 105). Feeling inferior to the colonizer is one of the causes of women’s minimization because it accentuates a lack of independence. Instead of considering them as deities, they should take example on some of the Western practices such as emancipation of women.

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Apart from the similarities, the most obvious dissimilarity between these characters is their large difference in age and their background. Nnu Ego is an old and married woman who comes from a rich family to go into a poor one whereas Tambu is a young teenager who comes from a poor household to go into a rich one. Nnu Ego’s does not only come from a rich family but also from a very large one while Tambu’s father only has one wife and four children. Also, even though Nnu Ego believes that her male children’s education is important, she never considered the importance of going to school when she was a child, at the opposite of Tambu whose greatest desire is to study since she was little: “Yes I did understand why I could not go back to school, but I loved going to school and I was good at it. Therefore, my circumstances affected me badly” (Dangarembga, 15). This quote foreshadows the place education has on the minimization of women’s status. In fact, one of the greatest reasons why society has such an invaluable view on women is partly due to the gender discrimination which exists when it comes to education.

This general description of the characters doesn’t make them static. In fact, they progress remarkably throughout the stories, along with the changes in society. This importance given to society is emphasized by a recurrent figure in both books, which is flashback. The two stories start in the middle of an action and these actions are paused so that the authors can explain their origins throughout the novel. Nervous Conditions starts with: “I was not sorry when my brother died…”, and a paragraph later, Dangaremba starts telling the story with “It happened in 1968.” The same style is used by Emecheta who begins the book with: “Nnu Ego backed out of the room…” and symmetrically, starts recounting the origins of the action with: “The year was 1934 and the place was Lagos”. This parallelism is used to provide to the reader crucial information central to the development of the plot and to the full understanding of the characters’ relationships to both the external and spiritual worlds which are important for the comprehension of the origins of minimization.

Also, in order to make the reader understand more these characters and their actions, the authors use a lot of dialogues in which these two protagonists take part. As direct speech is a mirror on a character’s mentality, dialogue is also important to learn about the situation of women in Lagos, especially the difference between uneducated ones such as Nnu Ego and educated ones like Tambu. We notice that Tambu mostly speaks with correct English whereas Nnu Ego speaks with various incorrect forms and uses a number of words exclusively pertaining to her culture: “… don’t you dare insult me by saying such things in my hearing” (Emecheta, 168). Nnu Ego speaks uses a language and a vocabulary which is overview on her lack of education.

These differences and similarities between the two protagonists show that no matter how large their difference in age is and no matter how different their living conditions are, they both suffer from the same miseries, especially the same problem of minimization of their status at home and in the society as a whole.

The prototype of the ‘house-woman’ inflicted to women in Africa is one of the greatest reasons why their other occupations are limited, especially education and professional work. Just as in The Joys of Motherhood and Nervous Conditions, women do a considerable job at home.

Motherhood is not only Nnu Ego’s greatest joys but also her greatest defeats. As a girl, she is taught that her only duties are to bear and raise her children: “But woman, you have to look after your child. That at least is a woman’s job.” (Emecheta, 86). This quote is an example of the denigration inflicted to this job which, in reality requires hard work and affection. In fact, Nnu Ego has to wake up early to manage her time between the chores and the children.

At first, the idea of motherhood corresponds to her dreams. Yet when Nnu Ego actually becomes a mother and struggles to raise her children, her idealism begins to change. Being the senior wife and endorsing all the responsibilities, she regrets having so many children and investing so much of her life in them since they seem to have little concern for her well-being. Concerning this she cites: “In Ibuza sons help their father more than they ever help their mother. A mother’s joy is only in the name… but in the actual help on the farm, the upholding of the family name, all belong to the father” (Emecheta, 122).This quote shows that society is not fair. Even though mothers like Nnu Ego struggle through a lot of difficulties to raise their children, when these grow older they become ungrateful to their mothers in aid of their fathers. However, Nnu Ego forces herself to accept a vision of motherhood that is totally different from the ideas she once cherished. Instead of a glorified figure, Nnu Ego becomes one who fully gave herself to her family while receiving little in return.

On the other hand, Tambudzai as the eldest, in spite of her age is also responsible for her younger brothers and has to take care of them as if she was their mother. In addition to that, since her childhood, she has been taught to work hard, doing domestic chores and working in the fields. She doesn’t complain about having to do so much work. She sometimes even works on her free will to keep order and cleanliness in the homestead where the conditions were not very attractive: “But whatever time we returned it was in time to cook the next meal or wash the previous meal’s dishes. Maiguru worked harder than anybody else, because as the senior wife… she was expected to oversee all the culinary operations” (Dangarembga, 137). Women were used as working machines and no rest was authorized, especially for senior wives who should assume much more responsibilities than other wives. Above this work at home, women also have duties in society, in which they are poorly treated.

In spite of women’s great efforts to keep their husbands happy and raise their children in the best way, society doesn’t treat them well, considering the stereotype by which women should be inferior. The first sign of disrespect to women is violence. In The Joys of Motherood, Nnu Ego is beaten by Nnaife when he feels that she doesn’t behave well: “Nnaife lost his temper and banged the guitar he was holding against her head” (Emecheta, 91). As a senior wife, Nnu Ego was supposed to be strong and to behave more like a man than a woman. The culture didn’t permit her to give in to her feelings and emotions even with all the ill-treatment she suffers from. The same problem exists in Nervous Conditions but with a father-daughter relationship. As a way of expressing his superiority upon her, Nyasha, Tambu’s cousin is beaten by her father when she has any defective behavior: “Babamukuru bellowed and snorted that if Nyasha was going to behave like a man, then by his mother who was at rest in her grave he would fight her like one.” (Dangarembga, 117) To fight against this Western attitude that his daughter has developed, Baba s willing to beat Nyasha as much as it takes.

Apart from this violence, Nnu Ego doesn’t have a say in her house despite all the tiredness she endures keeping everything in order. As men are generally the decision takers, women don’t have the right to complain about these decisions and their words are not taken into account. For example, in Nervous Conditions, Lucia, Tambu’s aunt is seen as a crazy woman because she expresses herself, rebels and defies men. In The Joys of Motherhood, even when neighbours know that Nnu Ego is right when she complains about Nnaife and life in general, they always put the blame on her because she’s the woman and must suffer in silence.

In both books, the husband becomes the woman’s father whom she cannot run away from no matter how much she suffers. In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego has considered the solution of going back to her father’s house when she couldn’t bare anymore the hard work and when Nnaife had to take care of his dead brother’s wives, but she knew that it would not be well seen by society and that image would always follow her children. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s father cheated on her mother with Lucia. Despite the betrayal she felt, Tambu’s mother couldn’t go back to her father’s house because of the image people might have of her. Thus, she had to stay in the house and keep living as if nothing happened. These examples of the limitation of women’s decisions due to the importance they give to society, weakens their status and contributes to the domination of men over them.

This limitation in taking decisions is emphasized in The Joys of Motherhood by the fact that Nnu Ego speaks almost always with questions. Her difficulties in taking her own decisions show that even though she is physically brave, Nnu Ego lacks independence and mental sufficiency. This is one aspect which accentuates her minimization as a woman because independence and mental strength are two important facets of an emancipated woman. We have as an example this passage: “… but here in Lagos where she was faced with the harsh reality of making ends meet on a pittance, was it right for her husband to refer to her responsibility?” (Emecheta, 137). Here, Nnu Ego asks herself whether the way Nnaife is treating her is right or not. However, as a woman, she doesn’t dare ask him directly because it is inappropriate for a woman whose rights are limited. This difference in rights is one of the reasons why the societies in these two books prefer male children to girls.

In fact, in both books, it is a greatest success to have a boy than a girl because boys uphold the family name whereas girls belong to their husbands in the future. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu was born a girl, which is a great disadvantage to her because society believes that the oldest male child is considered the future head of the family and all the family’s resources are gathered to help him lead his clan. “I was not sorry when my brother died” (Dangarembga, p.1). This quote is very important because it opens the story. It is so shocking that it’s meant to stay in the reader’s mind throughout the whole story. It shows the hatred Tambu has towards her brother, because he is one of the main reasons why she is put in secondary position. His death creates positive change in her life because she is able to take his place in the family.

In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnaife and the neighborhood feel a special happiness when Nnu Ego gives birth to male children and is disappointed when she has girls: “Nnaife was happier because the new wife gave him a son” (Emecheta, 127). This is because boys will become the head of the family and take over the work their parents have started. Thus, Nnu Ego wants her girls to show a lot of respect to their brothers because they’ll defend them whenever their husbands ill-treat them. The power of men over women is also shown with the fact that they can have as many wives and mistresses as they want and this is even a sign of manhood. On the other hand, unfaithful women are considered invaluable. This gender discrimination is one of the aspects constituting an obstacle on education.

In The Joys of Mothehood, Nnu Ego and her husband, Nnaife, believing that education is dedicated to boys first, they give up everything so that their two sons Oshia and Adim can have the benefit of education. On the other hand, daughters were looked at as an investment, so the parents mostly counted and cared about their future marriages which could bring in a good bride price and would most likely go towards their brothers’ education: “A girl needs to master a trade to help her in later life. The boys, on the other hand, were encouraged to put more time into their schoolwork.” (Emecheta,81). Nnu Ego puts emphasize on how pointless it is for girls to go to school. Instead, she believes that they should learn about ways of being good house mistresses. On the other hand, her two boys should be educated to assure their future roles as leaders of their families.

Although it takes place in an entirely different area of the African continent, in Nervous Conditions, the obstacles on education are reflected. Tambu’s fight for an education and a better life is blocked by her gender. She has to hide from her parents to do her homework or to read whereas her borther’s education was a right to him: “He did not like to see me over-absorbed in intellectual pursuits… He thought I was emulating my brother, that the things I read would fill my mind with impractical ideas, making me quite useless for the real tasks of feminine living.” (Dangarembga, 34). Tambu’s father finds her education useless. He prefers to see her doing chores than learning things which will not help her be a good wife and mother in her future. Education is important not only for the acquisition of knowledge but also in the process of gaining independence, respect and importance in society, therefore, girls being deprived of education lowers their status.

The characters of these two novels deal differently with their situations. In spite of all the factors contributing in minimizing woman’s status, we notice some scenes representing rebellion from women.

Minimization of women is mostly due to traditional thinking. However, some of the characters such as Nyasha look to Western or modern answers to the problems they face and others rebel against their conditions at some point. In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego is admired for her bravery and capacity of performing very hard work as a woman; she suffices to herself and her children and doesn’t expect any supplementary help from the others. This is mostly shown by the tone of the book which is sympathetic to Nnu Ego. With her vocabulary choice, it is seen that the author favors Nnu Ego and sometimes appeals to the reader’s emotions to pity her because of her hard work. “It was not fair, she felt, the way men cleverly used a woman’s sense of responsibility to actually enslave her” (Emecheta, 137). The word ‘enslave’ is an allegory which successfully describes Nnu Ego’s conditions. Nnaife abuses of her sense of responsibility and, imprisoned by her love for her children and her role as a seniorwife, she has to put up with her conditions. Nnu Ego’s qualities as a responsible woman make of her an almost independent figure and create a great wish of respect. This pursuit of respect is sometimes a cause of her rebellion.

The first time Nnu Ego rebelled is when she lost her first son. She tried to jump into the lagoon to camouflage her failure as a woman which would certainly follow her during her whole life: “And they all agreed that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman” (Emecheta, 62). In fact, in this Igbo society, womanhood consisted in having a maximum number of children. Losing her child was a failure and people didn’t consider destiny as the cause of such events, it only depended on a woman’s capacity of being a real woman.

Another manifestation of Nnu ego’s rebellion is when she reaches a stage where she has no choice than to rebel against Nnaife’s violence upon her: “Who is your father that you can come here and beat me, just because we are far away from anywhere” (Emecheta, 91). During this period of time, people were treated following their fathers’ place in the society. Nnu Ego, conscious of her father’s high position in society compared to Nnaife’s, uses it as an argument to defend herself from his violence. However, her rebellion is supported by a small number of people because it is an unusual action of an Igbo woman, especially at this time when women were supposed to bare with any situation they face with their husbands without complaining or rebelling.

In Nervous Conditions, Tambu doesn’t rebel much because she is still a child and mustn’t take decisions of her own but keep up with what her parents choose for her. The only situation in which she really outfaces her parents is when she wished to study more than anything. She insists so that they let her go to school: “I will earn the fees. If you will give me the seed, I will clear my own field and grown my own maize. Not much. Just enough for the fees” (Dangarembga, 27). Knowing that money would be one of the reasons why her parents won’t let her go to school, Tambu proposes to work to pay her own fees. As a girl who has to take care of most of the household chores, planning to clear an entire field by herself emphasizes her real wish of studying.

Apart from the protagonists, Ona, Nnu Ego’s mother in The Joys of Motherhood and Lucia, Tambu’s aunt are the two characters mostly representing women’s strength and rebellion. They don’t care much about how society views them. All they need is to make men respect them and their status. Also, Nyasha, Tambu’s cousin who has some western education stands up to her dad in an insolent way. This irritates him and pushes him to use violence but Nyasha doesn’t let go. She almost fights with her father. At the opposite of these characters, Nnu Ego and Tambu most of the time accept their conditions and don’t complain about unfairness.

Minimization of women which is common global issues is successfully depicted in The Joys of Motherhood and Nervous Conditions, considering the struggles that the protagonists face throughout the novels. This denigration of women is mainly due to the fact that boys are the ones to uphold the family’s name when they grow up. In spite of all the obstacles preventing women to impose themselves in society, some scenes in these two books show rebellion on their behalf. Belittlement of women does not only handicap this gender, but the whole society in a larger scale.


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